What percentage of people know the name of their MP? One recent survey by the Hansard society found the figure was down as low as 22%. That was the lowest figure in the ten years Hansard’s Audit of Political Engagement surveys had been asked. But even at its highest, the figure had only been 44%.
As someone who is absolutely hopeless at remembering names, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the validity of the question.
As part of a paper I’m writing with Rosie Campbell, we’ve looked at the first wave of the current British Election Study, where a similar question is asked – but in a different way. The BES asked their respondents: ‘which of the following people is the MP in your parliamentary constituency’? They presented respondents with five fake names (‘Mary Davies’, ‘Susan Stewart’, etc) along with the correct MP for that respondent . All six names were presented in a randomised order. Plus, there was also a Don’t Know and an Other option.
Rather than producing a correct figure down in the 20s or even 40s, some 68% of respondents now got the answer right.
Of course, with multiple choice questions like this, there will be some guessing going on – but the relatively low numbers plumping for each of the wrong options suggests this was not a major problem. Each of the five fake answers attracted fewer than 1% of respondents each, along with 2% who wrote in what they thought was the right answer, and a nice solid 27% who just admitted they did not know.
And, of course, multiple choice questions are easier to work out (as all TV quiz programmes show). But still, they are only easier to work out if you have some basic knowledge to begin with.
A potentially more serious problem is that this question, like the rest of the survey, was asked online – and so people could have cheated, by looking up the correct option. Astonishingly, this does go on…
But still, even allowing for some guessing and some cheating, I suspect this shows that background knowledge of MPs is higher than the ‘standard’ question reveals. There are a sizeable chunk of people who do know the right answer, but are just rubbish at remembering names.